Is Canada caught in the middle of a China-U.S. tech war?
Justin Trudeau wanted to distance himself from the arrest of a Huawei Technologies Co. executive, but China’s detention of a Canadian and Donald Trump’s interventions are dragging the prime minister into the feud anyhow.
State security officers seized Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat on leave from the foreign service, in Beijing on Monday, in relation to a national security investigation. The arrest comes nine days after Canada’s capture of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the request of U.S. authorities.
Meng was granted bail Tuesday, and while the timing of Kovrig’s arrest has analysts suggesting a possible tit-for-tat motivation, neither China nor Canada has yet linked the two cases. Trudeau’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said the ex-diplomat’s detention is nonetheless being handled at the highest levels even as she and the prime minister distance themselves from the Huawei executive’s plight by saying they can’t interfere with their country’s courts.
“Canada is a rule-of-law country, and Canada is a country that believes in abiding by its treaty obligations,” Freeland said at a New York Times panel discussion Tuesday evening in Toronto, alluding to the nation’s extradition treaty with the American government. “Our independent legal system is one of the finest, if not the finest, in the world. I trust it, Canadians should trust it and our partners around the world should trust it, too.”
The U.S. president sees the Huawei executive’s case differently. “ I would certainly intervene, if I thought it was necessary” to help secure a trade deal with China, Trump told Reuters in an interview Tuesday. Asked about Trump’s comment Wednesday morning in Ottawa, the prime minister said: “Regardless of what goes on in other countries, Canada is and will always remain a country with the rule of law.”
Trudeau is nonetheless mindful of the commercial implications of Chinese relations. His bid to launch formal trade talks fell apart during a visit to Beijing last year, when the prime minister’s hosts bristled at his push for strong labor, gender and environmental guarantees. This year, China warned of an investment chill after Trudeau’s government rejected the takeover of construction firm Aecon Group Inc. by a Chinese firm, citing national security.
The current controversy illustrates the impasse facing both nations: Canada is bound by laws that don’t constrain China, which has wide leeway over its justice system. Kovrig’s detention now adds an undeniably political element for Trudeau. The former diplomat helped arrange the prime minister’s visit to Hong Kong two years ago, before joining the International Crisis Group last year.
Trump’s boast undercuts Trudeau’s core defense of its hands-off approach to Meng’s case, according to Roland Paris, a University of Ottawa professor and former policy adviser to the prime minister. “Canada is fulfilling the terms of its treaty obligations and upholding the rule of law in good faith, and paying a price to do so,” Paris tweeted Tuesday night. “If the U.S. is not equally committed to the rule of law in this case, the extradition request should be withdrawn immediately.”
Canada has repeatedly avoided directly linking the Kovrig and Meng cases. Freeland declined twice on Tuesday evening to say if she thinks they’re connected, while Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters in Ottawa earlier that “there is no explicit indication of that at this point.”
Other analysts argue the timing of the ex-diplomat’s seizure suggests a motive. “It’s hard to avoid linking the two events and suspecting that Chinese government did this for retaliation,” Alex He, a research fellow for the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation, said by email. “It’s more than coincidental,” Hugh Stephens, a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, said in a phone interview.
China, however, is downplaying any link, with the editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper tweeting that “no evidence suggests this is Chinese government’s retaliation.”
At the very least, progress in the two cases will be jointly tracked. Freeland said Meng has access to consular services from Chinese officials, and that she’s made it clear to China that the Huawei executive, who is also the daughter of the company’s founder, hasn’t been convicted of breaking any laws.
It’s also not the first time high-profile Canadian and Chinese detentions have overlapped. Canada arrested Su Bin, a Chinese citizen, in July 2014 in relation for a U.S. investigation. China took a Canadian couple, Kevin and Julia Garratt, into custody the next month. Julia Garrett was let go in 2015, but her husband was held until September of 2016 -- seven months after Su waived extradition rights and was sent to the U.S.
Despite Trudeau and Freeland’s efforts to keep their distance, the Chinese now consider Meng’s arrest to be political, according to John Manley, a former Canadian foreign minister and deputy prime minister. He argues Canadian authorities should have taken steps to never have had to detain her in the first place -- in essence, letting her slip through their fingers in Vancouver
“This was a time when we should have missed her. Or told the Chinese not to let her on the flight,” Manley said in an email Tuesday. Trudeau should also not have been implicated by revealing he had a few days’ notice of the case, he added.
The scope of the diplomatic fallout isn’t yet clear. Canada’s environment minister met Tuesday in Poland with China’s climate change envoy and said the Huawei arrest wasn’t raised, according to a Canadian government statement.
But Meng’s case will end up in political hands eventually. After the bail hearing comes an extradition hearing, followed by a ruling by Canada’s justice minister and attorney general. That post is held by Jody Wilson-Raybould, who represents a district in Vancouver, where the Chinese executive was captured.
Wilson-Raybould issued a statement Wednesday saying Meng is “being afforded due process before the courts” and laying out Canada’s legal obligations in extradition cases.
Beyond that, “it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the facts of this case at this time,” the justice minister said. “Doing so would risk undermining both the independence of the court proceedings and the proper functioning of Canada’s extradition process. ”